It’s Saturday, September 1st, the family and I are packed and ready to go on our way down to the Kent coast. St Margaret’s at Cliffe to be exact, a few miles east of Dover. The journey should take no more than two hours (unless we run into traffic). We are hoping to take a look at some of the natural delights the county has to offer, such as Dungeness and Romney Marsh. The area is rich in history from both World Wars and there is so much to take in. Anyway, let’s get the show on the road…
We arrived at the holiday park of St Margaret’s Bay run by the company Parkdean Resorts. A small quiet site with caravans, a hotel, and bungalows for accommodation. The site includes a swimming pool, restaurant, and bar for entertainment. It is a short walk from the village of St Margaret’s at Cliffe and a ten-minute drive from Dover. We’re staying in a caravan, as we always do, for all our family holidays. I don’t know about you but for me, there is something about a caravan that makes you feel like it’s a holiday rather than a business trip. Now to crack open a refreshing beverage, relax and look through leaflets: planning our week of adventure.
After a few hours of flicking through we had narrowed it down to half a dozen. The White Cliffs was a definite and mandatory considering we were literally minutes away. We all agreed there had to be at least one day of bird watching, so RSPB Dungeness was chosen. Amongst the leaflets, there were a couple of heritage railway lines, one of Standard Gauge the other of Narrow Gauge. After reading both leaflets, and me being the enthusiast, I decided that the Narrow Gauge railway of Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway ought to get the pick. It was the longest Narrow Gauge railway I had ever come across at thirteen and a half miles. That was three days planned. The weather each day would then decide what was to be done. The other days were now to be filled depending on the weather and how energetic we were all feeling.
Day 2: White Cliffs of Dover
It was decided that today was to be spent walking a small two-mile section of the White Cliffs of Dover path from South Foreland Lighthouse to the National Trust Visitors Centre. The official path for the White Cliffs of Dover starts at the Visitor Centre and goes along the top of the cliffs sixteen miles to Folkestone. Technically, we were walking against all the directions within the literature but then we aren’t afraid of throwing the ‘rules’ into the wind.
The start of our walk began with a visit to the South Foreland Lighthouse. The lighthouse is positioned at the eastern end of the Goodwin Sands, a ten-mile-long sandbank lying six miles off the coast. It’s believed more than 2,000 ships have been wrecked upon the sandbank due to its close proximity to the major shipping lanes through the Straits of Dover.
- Roman Era – First cliff-top beacons constructed at Dover to guide seafarers safely into port. (Remains still visible within Dover Castle grounds)
- C14th – Beacons fires maintained by local hermit from St Margaret’s Bay
- 1630s – First record of permanent structures on current day lighthouse site of two wooden towers supporting iron baskets with coal fires. Over the next 150 years modifications were made to incorporate brick, flint and glazing.
- 1790s – Oil lamps were installed into the lighthouses
- 1830s – Trinity House owned and maintained all lighthouses in England and Wales. Structures were rebuilt using Portland Stone and worked in conjunction with a second lighthouse nearer the cliff edge.
- 1899 – Guglielmo Marconi conducted the world’s first radio experiments including the first ship to shore wireless transmission and the first international wireless transmission.
- 1969 – Lighthouse was automated and keepers transferred elsewhere.
- 1989 – National Trust took over the care of the lighthouse and opened it to the public.
Following on from the lighthouse is the site of Fan Bay, holding history from both World Wars. Concrete sound mirrors from World War I are still in situ and tours around the deep shelter constructed in World War II are available from the National Trust. The sound mirrors were used alongside parabolic microphones to pick up sound from great distances, mainly used in surveillance. In the years between the World Wars, they were used as early-warning devices by military air-defence forces to detect incoming aircraft by listening for the sound of their engines. A large network of these were in the process of being built along the south coast during World War II, however, this was cancelled, owing to the development of the Chain Home radar system. The Deep Shelter, constructed twenty-three meters down into the chalk during World War II, were used for accommodation for the artillery battery. Five large tunnels held everything required from storage for rifles to a hospital. The gun battery was intended to attack enemy ships moving through the English Channel. In the 1950’s the tunnels were abandoned and in the 70’s were filled with debris. In 2012, they were rediscovered by the National Trust, after restoration work and the removal of 100 tonnes of rubble, they were opened to the public in 2015.
Whilst walking this path along the cliff top we were followed by a Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) hovering over the cliff top fields and chalk grassland to our right. There is a flotilla of butterflies gorging on the remaining nectar-filled flowers. Whilst resting, taking on fluid and sustenance, I heard a strange sound. I can only describe it as an old camera shutter. I began to scan the scrub beneath us. Before long I saw these two partridge’s run from an area of bramble straight across to another. There was no doubt in my mind that what I had just seen was Grey Partridge (Perdix perdix). Brilliant. My first new tick of the year was seen within forty-eight hours of arriving in Kent and we weren’t even focusing on birding. It just goes to show that wildlife can surprise you when you least expect it.
In 1914, the derelict Langdon Prison was used as the barracks for soldiers en route to the Western Front in Flanders during World War I. The conditions were too cramped meaning many of them spent their last days in England living in tents. By 1924 the decision came to demolish most of the prison buildings and build a new barracks below the castle. The only remaining buildings were Mount Kemmel, the infirmary, sheds and storehouses. World War II saw these buildings used as an HQ and Sergeants’ mess for the nearby anti-aircraft battery. The battery was armed with two or three six-inch guns, all precisely placed to cover an extensive area of fire over the Channel. It was equipped with three searchlight positions and an observation post set into the cliffs, it soon became one of the most formidable gun batteries protecting Dover harbour. A maze of tunnels connected these sections of the battery together along with the eastern dock and Dover castle.
What is advertised as a two-hour walk, managed to be made into nearly four. We were enjoying all aspects of this though and not just the walk, reading history boards, admiring the views, listening to the sounds of the sea and wildlife, etc. Before reaching the Port though, Dad was scanning the cliffs with binoculars for anything perched upon them. It’s a good job he did as from nowhere he suddenly shouted “WOW”. With everyone now having eyes on him he had to explain his outburst. What he had spotted was a perched Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) mere meters from the top of the cliffs where tourists were using a photo opportunity spot for the white cliffs. It was perfectly happy sitting no more than three meters from the path above, it had found a small sheltered spot to preen and spy on potential passing prey. Now that’s what I call a fast food service. At any moment this magnificent bird of prey could swoop from its position, catch a pocket of thermal air, channelled up from the cliff face, and barrel down onto its prey. Although this spectacle didn’t happen for us, it was amazing to imagine it happening since I have seen them do this in my hometown of Ipswich, from our waterfront buildings. All three of us and others, photographers and nature-lovers alike, soon were congregating at our position to take a look at this wonderful falcon.
We have now reached the last stop of our two-mile journey, the Port of Dover. It’s a cross-channel port and the nearest to France, at just twenty-one miles. It is one of the world’s busiest passenger ports, here are some of the figures from 2017;
|Type of Transport||Value|
The port is divided into two sections, the Eastern Dock and the Western Dock. The Eastern Dock was the former home to ship breaking during World War I by the Admiralty. The yard shrank after World War II and was forced to close in 1964 to make room for a new car ferry terminal. In 1966, 600,000 vehicles travelled through Dover en route to France or Belgium. Today, all ferry services are operated from the Eastern Dock which has seven twin-level ferry berths and associated departure buildings. This dock also has a freight terminal with three loading cranes for a ship of up to 180 meters in length. The Western Dock was used as a terminal for the Golden Arrow and other cross-channel train services, it was here that the Unknown Warrior was landed. The docks were also used from 1968 to early 2000’s for a cross-channel hovercraft service. The railway station that was once here had its platforms filled in to create a roofed car park and new buildings, re-opening as the Dover Cruise Terminal in the 1990’s. It can accommodate up to three cruise ships at a time. Above the Port is the visitor’s centre of the National Trust for the White Cliffs. It occupies the site of the old Langdon Prison with its four terraces marking the ranges of the prison buildings.
Day 3: RSPB Dungeness
RSPB Dungeness is a headland on the Kent coast formed of shingle beach in the form of a cuspate foreland. The reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a Natura 2000 site, is set back from the sea with mile after mile of open shingle, freshwater pits, wet grassland, and stunning wildflower meadows. RSPB Dungeness is almost a thousand-hectares, hosting a range of habitats – predominantly shingle habitat. It’s an internationally important network of plants and animals home to unique lichens, plants and insects. These include the endemic leafhopper Anoscopus duffield (formerly Aphrodes duffield), and the scarce Nottingham catchfly, which is the food plant for several rare moths. It is the largest expanse of shingle anywhere in the world.
The reserve has more than 90 freshwater pits providing an environment for thousands of wintering wildfowl, including black-necked grebe (Podiceps nigricollis), goosander (Mergus merganser) and smew (Mergellus albellus), and supports nesting seabirds of gulls, terns and cormorants. The pits have been colonised by fen vegetation which supports several uncommon plants, including the regionally scarce great fen sedge (Cladium mariscus), as well as great crested newts (Triturus cristatus) and medicinal leeches (Hirudo medicinalis).
Dungeness is the third most biodiverse site in the country for its insect species and gives a home to a large number of rare bee species, including Brown-banded carder bee (Bombus humilis) and Red-shanked carder bee (Bombus rederarius). The reedbeds provide protection and hunting areas for resident marsh harriers (Circus aeruginosus), bitterns (Botaurus stellaris) and bearded reedlings (Panurus biarmicus).
The volunteers at the visitors’ centre told us to allow two-hours to go around the reserve. One of them asked where our local stamping ground was, replying with Minsmere, she rolled her eyes and said: “We can’t beat that, but I hope you enjoy your day.” Dungeness is such a tranquil location with the buzzing of bees, singing of birds, clicking of grasshoppers and crickets flooding the air. The boardwalk around the north and east side of the reserve are an ideal location to admire the local flora. I couldn’t name any of them as my botanical knowledge is near non-existent, however, the delicate flowers and the smell of coconut filling my nostrils, from the gorse is delightful. Looking across the shingle we sported a mirage of golden plover (Pluvialis apricaria) with a scattering of lapwings (Vanellus vanellus) amongst them. Admiring the camouflage of these birds with their arrangement of gold, black and white speckled plumage, within the mottled browns shingle, it was only by chance of scanning the area with the telescopes that we spotted them. In fact, it was the contrast of the bigger black and white lapwings that gave them away as when these moved a swath of plovers moved out of the way. This scene was disturbed when an approaching hobby (Falco subbuteo) flew overhead causing the flock to take flight and break up into smaller sections. The hobby wasn’t at all interested in them, seeming to fly towards a hunting site further up the coast.
It isn’t that often we get to see great-white egrets (Ardea alba) but today we managed to see around 11. I’m not sure if this count included duplicates from through-out the day as my dad was counting, I don’t count unless necessary during surveys for example. It started when walking along the path, looking in all the small pools, either side that I spotted something distinctively white in the distance. Erecting my telescope, taking a closer look, it was apparent that it was a great-white egret nestled within the reeds waiting for a passing catch. Obviously, I alerted my parents to the finding not knowing if they had ever seen one before, guiding them into the location of the bird. My dad told me that they had seen one before but it was many moons ago. As sod’s law goes, had I waited for two hides later, there was a group of six of these egrets within perfect view. One on an island filled with cormorants drying their wings in the mid-day sun, another on a neighbouring island on its own and the final four on a distant island. I tried to get a picture of the closest one using my DSLR camera however, it was just out of reach for a decent picture. Having not brought my digiscope adapter, I was left with taking a picture from my phone through the eyepiece of the telescope. Managed it, though distorted from a shaking hand.
At the beginning of this segment, I mentioned the volunteers had said to allow two-hours. Well, guess what? We took six, arriving at 10:30 and not leaving until 16:30. After a full day of birding, we saw a total of 51 birds, a full list of which can be found below. This is on par with an average days birding at Minsmere, so although the volunteer said they ‘…can’t beat that…’ this goes to show that with dedicated recording and taking your time, RSPB Dungeness is brimming with wildlife much like RSPB Minsmere, which is something to be immensely proud of.
Day 4: Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway
The Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway (RH&DR) thirteen and a half miles of fantasy and reality. You leave what can only be described as a toy town-sized station building and platforms (3-inches high), riding past clotheslines, collapsing breezeblock walls, an abandoned washing machine in a back garden, chuffing along in a small carriage the height of a sitting adult being pulled by a miniature steam train. Eventually, you are ferried across a beautiful, windswept shingle peninsula, dotted with old railway carriage houses and abandoned shipping containers. Finally, you reach the terminus of the railway at the foot of a nuclear power station. This huge, monolithic structure consisting of two reactors, towering at least a hundred meters up, on a 225-acre site. The meeting of ‘toy trains’ and grim industrial purpose is what makes the RH&DR so perfect. The RH&DR battles between childish fantasy and real life. It is the result of hard work and idea of two wealthy men, each obsessed with miniature railways. Both were racing drivers, and one a real-life Count. During the war it was used for serious work, while the world’s only miniature armoured train trundled up and down the track, protecting the coast against invasion by the Germans.
The railway was immensely enjoyable. I couldn’t help but release my inner child. Along the journey constantly pointing out things of interest, like the sound mirrors perched on the side of an inland cliff and the pillboxes scattered along the side of the line. To begin with, it seemed rather intrusive being able to see into the bark gardens of the public. It dawned on me that it wasn’t about us peering into their private lives but more them seeing the sceptical of this ‘mainline in miniature’ passing by. Mum put herself in their shoes being particularly concerned for their drying clothes smelling of smoke from the billowing chimney of the loco. It isn’t just the railway though, there are places to visit within the locations it passes through. For us, we were using it to visit the Dungeness Lighthouse. This lighthouse is actually the fourth to be constructed on Dungeness.
The first was in 1615 when a 35-foot wooden structure with a coal fire, however, the sea was retreating at such a pace that within twenty-years a taller brick structure had to be built. This second lighthouse saw a hundred and fifty years of events along the coast including the Anglo-Dutch war. By 1790, number two was too far inland to be useful, so a third was built at 116-foot tall. It was at Dungeness, under the control of Trinity House, that electric lights were pioneered, though it proved too costly so reverted to oil burners. In 1901, number three was left high and dry and so the lighthouse we visited was commissioned.
At 150-foot tall its future was seen as near certainty, however, in 1960, it was decommissioned as the construction of the nuclear power plant blocked much of its light. This lighthouse, though not functional, is now open to the public with a spectacular view from the top on a clear day. Our day was somewhat misty in the distance but still a wonder to behold. On the way up the 169 steps to the light, you pass five floors containing information about the local area and the light itself. This lighthouse wasn’t lived in, rather a circular building is situated next to it serving as the accommodation for the lighthouse keeper. This two-storey structure also at one stage had a light upon its roof. I cannot recall it being mentioned within the literature, but I can only imagine the reason being was that if you could see both the light of the lighthouse and the light of the accommodation your vessel was too close to the shore. Going to the top did not worry me at all, however, coming down did send my knees to slight jelly. You see, as you come down the steps appear to float only being held in place by the outside wall, allowing you see directly down to the ground floor. At this considerable height, I would have preferred a slide.
Finishing though with the history of the lighthouse the fifth lighthouse is now the functioning protector for the headland and fully automatic.
Day 5: Rest Day
After three days of walking and doing activities in the sea air, it was decided that today was to be our rest day. Now to me, a rest comprises of doing absolutely nothing with regards to exerting energy. So when the parents sprung upon me the idea of walking down the road into the village of St Margaret’s at Cliffe, it seemed fitting to reply with “These legs are doing nothing.” I stayed in the caravan continuing to play on my computer game, (Banished if anyone is somewhat interested). They wanted to go along to the village shop as the one on site was rather poor, being a mere cupboard compared to other sites we have frequented. It wasn’t long before they returned, saying that the village consisted of no more than the village shop, two pubs, a couple of estate agents and a bank. So the rest of the day was spent playing games, whilst they read books and watched television.
Day 6: Wildwood Trust
The Wildwood Trust describes itself as a woodland discovery park featuring over fifty native British species both past and present. Within the forty-two-acre site of natural ancient woodland, the park houses animals such as deer, badgers, wild boar, wolves and brown bear. All the animals are set within natural enclosures. I must say from seeing them myself, some of the enclosures are a little primitive, whereas other like the brown bears and wolves are very well designed and suit the animal’s needs. The trust is a registered charity and is the largest in Kent. Its aim is to save British wildlife from extinction and reintroduce recently made extinct animals such and the beaver, boar and Konik.
Some of the highlights from our day here included two brown bears rescued from a bear breeding facility in Kormissosh, Bulgaria. We got to see the bears foraging for food in the pool, nibbling on bark from a floating log as well as general snuffling for seeds that had fallen from the native trees growing within and around the enclosure.
The park’s pair of Eurasian wolves gave birth to four cubs in recent years, creating a wolf pack. I couldn’t get any good views of the wolves though as they were all huddled together at the furthers corner of their enclosure. They also have elk, three of the UK’s deer species and European bison. These were especially nice to see. I know they are essentially a wild cow, but the size and appearance of these gargantuan bovine species were amazing.
I enjoyed seeing all the animals they have here, so much so that I was forgetting to take pictures of them. Some of them were fast asleep, as they would be during the day, for example, the badger. Below are some of the pictures I did take whenever I remembered to do so. I would like to state that seeing these animals in the wild is so much better, it was through a wonderful opportunity to admire these animals in such proximity with the addition of a safety fence.
Day 7: Canterbury
Our trip to Canterbury was to be a potential shopping trip and to see the infamous cathedral. The streets are lined with modern, Victorian and Tudor period buildings. We were looking for gifts for loved ones and having a general wander through the city’s streets. We came across a museum that had a free exhibition about the history of Ladybird books. With my parents being bibliophiles there was no hesitation.
The exhibition was being held within the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge. It was presenting the original artworks produced by the artists for the panel pictures in the books. One of the displays was a wall of ladybird books showing the complete collection with all cover variations. It was a nice experience to reminisce about my childhood when my father would read to me ‘Smoke and Fluff’. They even had an original unfolded printing of the book, highlighting the production of them during the war. There was a shortage of paper so the printing of the books was designed so that a whole book could be produced on both sides of one large piece and then folded in such a way to produce the finished product.
Following this visit, we walked towards Christ Church Gate to Canterbury cathedral. It’s a marvellous piece of stonework nestled between the Victorian and Tudor buildings. This is the only visitor entrance to the cathedral and its grounds. Looking at the prices of admission my parents refused to pay. They feel it is wrong to charge entry to what is essentially a place of God and worship. In part, I agree with their argument, but I respect the standpoint of the cathedral and other large venues of worship where they charge entry. It is this revenue that then gets put back into the maintenance of such places. As I was merely along as ‘chauffeur’, I didn’t put up a fight about going in for all I would have wanted to see was the Magna Carta.
We visited some shops along the high street, some of which we do not have in Ipswich. The ones that appealed to dad and I were the American sweet shops, though the actual selection of confectionary they had on offer from the USA was not of a wide selection one would have expected. After a few hours of wandering around and peering aimlessly through shop windows, we decided to head back to the caravan and relax for the rest of the day in preparation for our journey home.
This concludes our family trip to Kent. In summary, it is a wonderful county, steeped in history of both war and culture. This being said, for me, it doesn’t hold the wonder and awe of places like Wales or the Lake District. If I visited again it would be for a short break and a specific activity. Don’t let what I have said here though put you off. It is a county that should be visited by all who are able. It has shown me just how close we are to neighbouring countries on the continent, as well as the amount of infrastructure that was put in place during the World Wars, which changed the shape of parts of our coastline.